A Soldier’s Fight
Lester Sanderson with his wife, Brittany, posing with their children: Matthew, 10, Annabelle, 5, and John, 3.
After years spent fighting for his country overseas in Kuwait and returning home, U.S. Army Veteran Lester Sanderson’s battle is far from over.
The rules may have changed; his enemy isn’t hiding amongst the sand dunes with an AK-47 gripped in malevolent hands. The battle isn’t taking place in some distant desert, portrayed on the evening news half a world away.
There are no bullets, rockets, or grenades. The enemy cannot climb amongst the rocks, place improvised explosive devices along heavily-used tracks, or lay clever ambushes.
But for Lester, the danger is just as real as the deadliest fire fight, and the enemy just as cunning as an armed assailant.
For over a month, Lester’s body has been under siege from itself; his immune system mistakenly and ruthlessly attacking his central nervous system, a condition known as multiple sclerosis (MS).
When MS sets in, an immune-mediated process begins, in which inflammation causes sever damage to myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers, the nerve fibers themselves, and the specialized cells that make myelin, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
It’s not the first time that Lester has had to contend with MS, having first experienced its terrifying symptoms during the tail end of a 2012 deployment in northern Kuwait.
Back then, the symptoms had started as a sharp pain in his back, which Lester believed to be a side effect of lifting heavy weights, as he was prone to do during deployments.
But the pain intensified, quickly becoming the worst pain that he had ever felt in his life. It took medical examiners eight months to diagnose Lester with MS, evidenced by several lesions on his brain and spinal column.
At the urging of medical professionals, Lester allowed the harvesting of his stem cells, which were stored, and later returned into his body, a process known as an autologous stem cell transplant.
The treatment worked, clearing Lester of all MS symptoms.
He was medically retired from military service, and returned home to Gillette, believing his battle with MS was over.
For six years, Lester lived and worked in and around Gillette as a rig hand before taking a job at the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, employed by Peabody Energy as a driller and equipment operator.
But on the first day of 2019, he felt the familiar tingle accompanied by a sinking feeling and decided to go to the hospital.
The diagnosis wasn’t good; an MRI revealed that the lesions were back, and the onslaught of MS had returned.
“It came on real quick,” Lester said, speaking from his bed in the Shirley Ryan Ability Center in Chicago, IL.
In the space of a month, 17 lesions had appeared on his brain and his health rapidly declined, with MS symptoms quickly confining him to a wheelchair.
Lester applied to his military medical insurance agency, Tri-Care, which he had been told would be allotted to him upon his medical retirement.
Tricare had covered the $125,000 needed for his last stem cell transplant, which is the treatment Lester desperately needed
But this time, Tri-Care was no help, they denied his initial claim and multiple attempts to appeal their decision.
His faith in Tri-Care had led him to declining health insurance through NARM.
“It just didn’t make sense to carry them both,” Lester explained.
Payments are not an option either, the stem cell transplant isn’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means Lester needs to come up with the whole $125,000 himself.
He’s spoken with the Veteran’s Association (VA), which is willing to help if Lester can make the trek back to fill out the paperwork in person. But that’s simply not possible in his current condition, and Lester has no choice but to remain in Chicago.
But luckily, Lester is not alone in his fight against MS. His sister, Erryn Jae, has stepped up to the plate and has done the one thing she knew her brother would never do — ask others for help.
Erryn has set up a Go Fund Me campaign, titled “Helping Lester Stand: A Soldier’s Battle Against MS.”
“We will continue to appeal for as long as it takes and as many times necessary,” Erryn wrote on the campaign. “Because our family will never give up on each other.”
Donations to Lester’s cause have filtered in, $25 here and $100 there, having received nearly 2,000 likes on social media.
As it stands currently, the campaign has run for 19 days and has raised over $15,000 donated by 96 people.
Lester’s not entirely comfortable with the campaign.
“I hate asking people for money,” he explained.
Nonetheless, he remains grateful for all the people who have helped and are willing to help.
“I’ve been sitting here most of the morning trying to think of a way to thank all of the people that are doing so much to help me,” Lester wrote in a recent update to his Facebook account.
“I am not real big on words, as a matter of fact I’m speechless as to how I’ll ever be able to repay all of you,” the update continues. “But your kindness is a true blessing, thank you all so very much.”
Click here to view Lester’s campaign.